Yasmine Sherif in Lebanon with Palestine refugee children. Credit: Education Cannot Wait (ECW)
Education Cannot Wait (ECW) says, as the world commemorates World Refugee Day.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with IPS in New York, Sherif shared her vision for a world where dignity and the right to believe in better prospects are returned child refugees – something, she says, can be delivered through education.
“When you sit down and listen to young refugees in Bangladesh, in Colombia, in Lebanon, or in Uganda, the large majority will tell you they dream of becoming somebody that lives a better life, that helps others, that serves their communities or their country,” says Sherif. “They know that the pathway there is an education. They understand the value of an education. This is their hope. This is their dream.”
Sherif chronicles the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalation of violence in Palestine, and ongoing conflicts on child refugees, especially in the past year.
A staggering 128 million children and youth are urgently in need of assistance, up 75 million from before the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted funding for millions of people already reeling from conflict, record levels of displacement, and climate change shocks,” she says. “For these children, COVID-19 is a crisis upon a crisis. Some 79.5 million are currently displaced, more people than at any time since World War II. Almost half – 34 million – of those displaced are children, and youth and 48 percent of all school-age refugee children are out of school.”
Many of the displacees have never set foot in a classroom, she says.
“Most have been out of education for so long that they now lack the most basic competencies in reading, writing, and mathematics.”
Sherif speaks about the recent escalation of violence in Palestine which was especially hard for the organization as ECW lost 66 children in Gaza.
“Nine entire families were wiped off the civil registry,” she says, including Obaida, a 17-year-old from Hebron, Aroub Refugee camp in the West Bank.
“We have a video of Obaida from our program speaking about his aspirations, dreams, and fears. Now he is dead. It is heart-breaking to see these fears get manifested,” she says. “Here we are all trying to support these already vulnerable, long-suffering, yet heroic children and youth, only to see them die before our eyes.”
Long-term conflicts continue to exacerbate the refugee crisis, and long-term ECW projects are working with some success to bring education to some vulnerable young displaces – but educating girls remains a challenge.
Cameroon, for example, hosts almost 447,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them being from the Central African Republic (CAR) but also from Nigeria.
“While school attendance among CAR refugees in Cameroon has increased generally from 40 to 46 percent over the past seven years, girls attending school has not significantly increased due to the usual socio-cultural and protection barriers,” says Sherif.
Girls tend to be left behind, she confirms.
“Refugee girls often face layers of disadvantage and vulnerability. It is a reason that ECW has committed to raising the proportion of girls supported by its programming to 60% of the total children reached.”
However, Sherif warns, a funding gap could hamper ECW’s efforts.
“Our funding gap for 2021-2023 is US$400 million to maintain the same level of commitment to these children and youth left furthest behind in crisis,” she says. “The additional US$400 million will help ECW reach an additional 4.5 million children, and young people – including 2.7 million girls – affected by conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 receive an education over the next three years.”
As the world considers the plight of refugee children on World Refugee Day 2021, Sherif asks:
“Is it not a disgrace that we are unable as a human family to reduce the refugees’ out-of-school to zero and increase girls’ access to quality education to 100%? This is something that can be done. With financing, it is possible.”
IPS : As we commemorate World Refugee Day on 20 June – which this year has the theme Together we Heal, Learn and Shine – there is a particular emphasis on the education of the children of refugees. How important is education as an element of normalcy in crises where children, often on their own but also with their families, are forced to flee because of violent confrontations?
YS: When families with their children face such a level of danger that they have no choice but to run for their lives and even cross the border into another country for safety and protection, you can imagine how abnormal their life has become. That abnormality traumatizes children and youth. It paralyzes them with fear, impacts their sense of safety and personal security, makes it difficult for them to concentrate and think clearly. It makes them worried about what is next and how much more they may have to go through before it is all over.
All they have left is their will to survive, and that means hope and dreams. When you sit down and listen to young refugees in Bangladesh, in Colombia, in Lebanon, or in Uganda, the large majority will tell you they dream of becoming somebody that lives a better life, that helps others, that serves their communities, or their country. They know that the pathway there is an education. They understand the value of an education. This is their hope. This is their dream.
To these refugee children and youth, education is their only chance for some normalcy. It is critically important for their mental health, their physical protection, and for their development. What is the alternative? They sit and wait until the crisis is over 10-20 years later, and they can go home. Well, most conflicts last even longer than that. Look at Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are speaking decades and generations here. It is not acceptable that the world in the 21st century leaves them behind to wait.
Now, look at the figures of their reality: 48 percent of refugees remain out of school today. These figures become even more stark among girls and older students. Just 27 percent of secondary-age girls are enrolled in education, and just 3 percent of all refugees are enrolled in tertiary education.
One ought to ask the question: Isn’t it inconceivable that a world so rich in resources, so wealthy amongst those who have, and so modernized in so many ways, is so unable to deliver on the basic human right of an education? Is it not a disgrace that we are unable as a human family to reduce the refugees out-of-school to zero and increase girls’ access to a quality education to 100%? This is something that can be done. With financing, it is possible.
IPS : Many countries hosting refugee children and youth have benefitted from ECW’s programs – including Afghanistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Chad. You also have programs in Colombia, for example, for Venezuelan refugees. These include several multi-year programs for refugees and displaced children. Has Covid-19 affected the fundraising for the projects? Is sufficient funding available, and if not, what needs to be done?
YS: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted funding for millions of people already reeling from conflict, record levels of displacement, and climate change shocks. According to the United Nations, 235 million people worldwide will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021 alone – an increase of 40 percent in one year. Among those urgently in need of assistance are 128 million children and youth whose education is disrupted by humanitarian crises, up from 75 million before the pandemic struck.
For these children, COVID-19 is a crisis upon a crisis. Some 79.5 million are currently displaced, more people than at any time since World War II. Almost half – 34 million – of those displaced are children and youth, and 48 percent of all school-age refugee children are out of school. Most have been out of education for so long that they now lack the most basic competencies in reading, writing, and mathematics. Many, forced to flee their homes at a young age, have never stepped foot in a classroom.
This brings us back to the solution: financing. Despite encouraging progress in recent years, education for displaced children and youth remains severely underfunded, with only one-third of current funding needs being met according to UNESCO. So, improving education financing for refugees and the internally displaced requires bringing together both humanitarian and development aid in line with commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit, in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, and at the Refugee Global Compact.
The time is over when humanitarians did their part at one end of the spectrum and the development actors their part at the other end of the spectrum. The time is over when silos and competition over funding take over cooperation and coordination, and a more enlightened awareness of working together for others emerges to stay.
This is why Education Cannot Wait was established. To end the silos and competition, to bring together the humanitarian and development actors through the United Nations established coordination system, to work jointly, for collective outcomes, which, in the education sector, means learning outcomes. Education is a development sector, but financing cannot be confined to children and youth living in traditional development settings.
What ECW does is to bring a development sector into a crisis or humanitarian setting. Besides the need for a crisis-sensitive approach, this requires a much bigger understanding of the abnormal context and a much deeper commitment to cooperation, joint programming, coordination, and – above all – a significantly higher level of financing.
As such, ECW’s primary strategic objective is to inspire political will that translates into more financing through increased levels of funding as well as multi-year and predictable funding. Only then can we ensure that refugees are guaranteed to become part of the national education system, and only then can we reach all those in emergencies who are otherwise considered “unreachable” due to the abnormalities of a crisis context. So far, we have seen an upward trend in financing and, as a result, a significant number of children and youth reached with a whole-of-child quality education in a very short period of time. Still, it is far from sufficient or adequate. Millions more are still waiting for an inclusive quality education.
Combining the resources raised to the ECW Trust Fund and the resources leveraged in-country towards ECW’s multi-year resilience programs, ECW has mobilized 1.5 billion. Through close cooperation with our strategic donors and emergency actors on the ground and within the humanitarian coordination structure, we have also been able to increase humanitarian funding from 2.4% to 5.1%.
Still, the funding situation for ECW will require strong action from donors to step in and ensure the ECW is well funded for 2021 and beyond to meet its multi-year finance obligations. If all ECW’s multi-year resilience programs to date were fully funded, our investments would have reached 16 million children and youth rather than the 5 million reached thus far – although a significant number given the short time of operations.
It is all about financing. The system, the structure, the partnerships, the coordination mechanisms, the joint programs, the speed, the governance structure, and – above all – the readiness and expertise of all our partners in government, civil society, UN agencies, and local communities, are in place. The ECW model as a catalytic fund is now a proven model based on external evaluations and the actual results.
Our funding gap for 2021-2023 is US$400 million to maintain the same level of commitment to these children and youth left furthest behind in crisis. This is a modest calculation made to accommodate the economic recession as a result of COVID-19. We have tried to meet our strategic donor partners, current and new ones, halfway, as we all equally are committed. The additional US$400 million will help ECW reach an additional 4.5 million children, and young people – including 2.7 million girls – affected by conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 receive an education over the next three years.
IPS : As ECW Director, you recently went on a visit to DR Congo and made an urgent plea for the world to take note of dire circumstances in which 200 000 children and youth are impacted by the protracted crisis in the DRC. You estimated that US$45.3 million was needed. How does education help young girls who face early marriages, GBV, and many other traumas?
YS: One has to go to the refugees to fully fathom what they are going through. Go to them. Be with them. Listen to them. This is what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, and I did when traveling to meet the refugees arriving from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It also allowed us to see the enormous commitment by the government, UNHCR, UNICEF, and a number of civil society organizations working hand-in-hand with the -host-communities and refugees to make a difference: to build schools, train teachers, provide quality learning material, and so forth. Again, what they need more than anything is financing.
In other parts of DRC, which is a big country affected by multiple and protracted crises, like many places around the world, women and girls are significantly disadvantaged by pre-existing harmful gender norms, gender discrimination, and the low social status of women and girls, which contributes to high rates of GBV such as sexual, physical, emotional, or economic violence, as well as harmful traditional practices such as child marriage. Continued population displacement, insecurity, and conflict further exacerbate the cycle of violence against women and girls.
The consequences of GBV are serious and often life-threatening. We know that exposure to GBV can lead to serious negative health outcomes such as HIV/AIDS and STI infection, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, maternal and infant mortality, and even suicide. After-effects of GBV can also lead to emotional and psychological distress such as post-traumatic stress and depression. Social stigma, rejection, and isolation are very common for GBV survivors, who are often blamed for what happened to them. As a result of this stigma, most survivors never report the incident. When it comes to education, the physical and psycho-social impacts of GBV have consequences for learning, attendance, retention, and achievement.
Education plays a key role in combatting and ending GBV. Schools provide a safe space for girls and boys where harmful norms that fuel gender inequality and GBV can be challenged to support gender equality and prevent GBV. Identifying and addressing the GBV risks and barriers related to access and retention in education services to ensure safe and protective learning environments for girls, boys, and female teachers decreases the risk of schools related GBV, increases access and retention in schools, and therefore limits the risk of exposure to GBV in the family and community or by other third parties (such as armed groups).
Additionally, through community mobilization, teachers’ training, sensitization of girls and boys on gender equality, and the development of gender-responsive curricula, education can address the root causes of gender-based inequalities and contribute to transform harmful gender roles, norms, and power relations into positive norms. Projections show that by 2030, only 1-in-3 girls in crisis-affected countries will have completed secondary school; 1-in-5 girls in crisis-affected countries will not be able to read a simple sentence, and girls in crisis-affected countries will receive on average just 8.5 years of education in their lifetime.
In the DRC, more than a third of girls are married before they turn 18, and around 10 percent are married before they turn 15. This figure is related to the lack of access to education, making marriage a more likely outcome, and a reason that girls are prevented from accessing or staying in education in the first place. Still, the impact of educating a girl does not stop with her. The knowledge, skills, and empowerment it provides are essential to the fate of any community or country. According to United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), for each additional year of secondary education that a girl receives, infant mortality decreases by 10%, and her country’s resilience to climate disasters improves by 3.2 points.
Before the recent 2021 influx of some 92,000 refugees in DRC, there were over 173,000 CAR refugees already there. UNHCR continues to register all CAR refugees, but preliminary figures indicate that some 70 percent of primary age children had no access to education before arriving in DRC, and only 5 percent of children aged 12-17 had been enrolled in secondary school. The First Emergency Response Grant, which ECW provided during the UNHCR/ECW mission for the CAR refugee emergency, supports primary and secondary education, especially equitable access for girls, school capacity for teachers, and building up the school infrastructure. With funding available at hand when it most matters, we can make a difference.
IPS: Apart from the programs mentioned above, refugee girls – in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere are very often left furthest behind. Many are often not only survivors of armed conflicts but also of Gender-based violence (GBV). How is their trauma addressed in ECW programs?
YS: Refugee girls often face layers of disadvantage and vulnerability. That is why ECW has committed to raising the proportion of girls supported by its programming to 60% of the total number of children reached. We further recognize that girls, as well as boys, who have experienced the trauma of conflict, are more vulnerable and maybe ill-prepared for the classroom. ECW, therefore, supports a whole-of-child approach that prioritizes physical safety and psycho-social support alongside learning outcomes.
The ECW whole-of-girl-child approach helps create referral pathways to professional help for those impacted by gender-based violence; it builds teacher’s capacities to teach in a gender-sensitive way; it creates physical space that is appropriate for and accommodating to the needs of girl children, and it helps prioritize the hiring of female teachers who themselves are some of the best advocates and role models for crisis-affected girls.
As highlighted in the ECW Gender Strategy (2018-2021) and ECW Gender Policy (2019-2021), we are committed to addressing GBV in all our investments to our partners. This translates into a number of actions, such as mandatory gender analysis in all ECW investments, assessing and identifying the differentiated needs of girls and boys, including an analysis of access to and physical safety of learning environments to identify risks of GBV, as well as the capacity of education personnel to address risks of GBV and safely refer survivors. Such analysis becomes an integral part of program design, implementation, and measuring results and actual outcomes.
In Afghanistan and South Sudan, just to mention a couple of examples, ECW’s investments are aligned with the National Girls’ Education Strategies, which aim to address the root causes of gender inequality and GBV through education. As Protection is another of ECW’s priorities, our investments add an additional dimension that is so important in crisis countries by making the environment in and around schools safe and free from GBV through risk mitigation measures and capacity development of educational personnel, school safety plans, Codes of Conduct and training, while also advocating for the respect of international law and the Safe Schools Declaration.
IPS: Refugee and forcibly displaced communities have also had to face the challenge of COVID-19 over the past 18 months, with many communities in lockdowns. How has COVID-19 impacted ECW programs, and what actions is ECW taking to address the pandemic?
YS: The COVID-19 pandemic created a double emergency. Already disadvantaged by crisis, COVID-19 complexified and increased the barriers between children and youth and their education. Facing what could lead to lost generations in countries affected by crises, ECW concentrated its resources in places where this double emergency was most likely to deepen the already abnormal conditions for school-aged children and youth with a focus on refugees, girls, and children with disabilities. Thanks to our First Emergency Response Window and strong collective backing by our Executive Committee, ECW was able to move quickly and easily reprogram existing multi-year plans to respond to the crisis. With unprecedented speed, ECW had dispatched US$ 23 million to support 9 million vulnerable girls and boys, who could quickly access distance learning, safety protocol in classrooms, water, sanitation, and hygiene, to prevent further spread of the disease and prevent a disruption of their education.
IPS: Do these countries and communities where refugee children find themselves have enough trained educators and caregivers who can provide the quality support they need? How does ECW help address these challenges?
YS: Besides the parents (bearing in mind that many children and youth have either lost one or both of their parents due to conflict, separation during flight, and so forth), teachers are the single biggest contributor to a child’s education and development. However, in many of the countries in which ECW works, there are simply too few qualified teachers trained to provide quality teaching. ECW’s investments support ministries of education to improve the capacity of existing teacher cohorts, to recruit and train new teachers, and to advance professional development for volunteers, facilitators, and teachers, often this also includes refugee teachers.
Bearing in mind that teachers are often victims of conflict and forced displacement themselves, ECW’s investments also focus on the well-being of teachers. They are mentors and pillars of hope for their students, and yet they too have often experienced the same impact of crises as the girls and boys in their classrooms. Teaching support groups and training on personal well-being not only help teachers handle challenging circumstances but also their own well-being.
IPS: ECW has programs in Palestine, which was subjected to airstrikes on Gaza in the past month. How has the conflict impacted your projects in the region? You and your team recently visited Lebanon, where Palestine refugees have been hosted for decades. How has the recent and the long-term conflict and insecurity in the region impacted the numbers of displaced, and how are your programs addressing this?
YS: The escalation of conflicts in the Middle East is most concerning and alarming. Everywhere you turn your head, you see innocent people struggling and suffering without adequate solutions and bold support in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine.
ECW is working in all these countries in the region through multi-year funding, as is the case now in Syria and Palestine and currently under development for Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya. We have eight first emergency responses active in all these countries responding to both covid19 as well as specific escalation of crises in places like Gaza, North Syria, Coastal governorates of Yemen, the Beirut blast, as well as responses to the refugee crisis in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya.
In Palestine, the recent escalation was especially hard as we have lost 66 children in Gaza of whom many were part of the ECW program – 9 entire families were wiped off the civil registry – Obaida, a 17-year-old from Hebron, Aroub Refugee camp in the West Bank was also killed that week. We have a video of Obaida from our program speaking about his aspirations, dreams, and fears. Now he is dead. It is heart-breaking to see these fears get manifested. The Norwegian Refugee Council speaks of similar losses, as does UNRWA. Here we are all trying to support these already vulnerable, long-suffering, yet heroic children and youth, only to see them die before our eyes.
In response to the crisis in Gaza, ECW is now launching yet another emergency response with UNRWA and UNICEF to provide MHPSS and catch-up learning during the summer to 50,000 children who were most affected by the recent attacks, especially those who are among the 8000 families that lost their homes. The investment will also help repair and equip some 30 schools that were lightly damaged so that the new school year can resume on time in September.
Supporting UNRWA, UNICEF, and the many partners active on the ground is essential to ensure minimum support to the Palestinian refugees in the region. UNRWA currently supports around 526,000 Palestinian refugee children and employs more than 22,000 education staff from the refugee community – we cannot halt these efforts until a just and long-lasting resolution is reached.
IPS: ECW announced earlier this month US$1 million grant to ensure refugee children and youth arriving from the Central African Republic (CAR) receive access to quality learning in Cameroon. This is just one of the grants made available in crisis areas in Africa, how important is the support of the refugee community there? How will the grant be spent, and how many children could potentially benefit?
YS: The program in Cameroon aims to reach over 6,000 newly displaced Central African Republic girls and boys. The emphasis here is to ensure these children have immediate access to the highest quality learning and protective services possible. Returning to the classroom, being among friends, will help limit the trauma of displacement. It will also ensure that especially girls have the best possible chance to continue their learning as we know that for each day they are out of school, they are less likely to ever return.
We must ensure these children, who are victims of conflict at home and now forcible displacement abroad, are not forgotten. Supporting the whole refugee community is essential to giving these children the best chance to thrive. We cannot leave them behind.
Cameroon hosts almost 447,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them being from CAR but also from Nigeria. The latest violence following elections in CAR forced some 6,700 refugees – over half are children—from CAR into Cameroon. While school attendance among CAR refugees in Cameroon has increased generally from 40 to 46 percent over the past seven years, girls attending school has not significantly increased due to the usual socio-cultural and protection barriers. ECW funding to our partners working together on the ground will provide over 6,000 refugee children and youth (3,500 girls and 2,400 boys) with access to safe learning environments. Some 1,000 host community children and youth will also be helped. Classrooms are being built, and water and sanitation facilities are being upgraded while learning materials, hygiene kits, and other school materials are provided.
Girls are disadvantaged, and we need to constantly keep this fact on top of our minds as we prioritize. Data from UNHCR’s most recent education report indicate that more than 1.8 million children -or 48 percent of all refugee children of school age—are out of school, and girls are more significantly affected. Only 27% of refugee girls go on to secondary school, and only 50 percent of all refugee girls in school will likely not return when classrooms reopen post-COVID-19.
In a world that wants nothing more than peace and security, nothing more than stability and the protection of our planet, and presumably an evolution that shows we are indeed moving forward, it is sad to see that we have not come further than this in ensuring access to inclusive quality education for every child and adolescent. These are children and youth hoping for education in the midst of climate-induced conflict, armed conflicts, protracted military occupation, and forced displacement.
Time has come when words are not enough. Now we need to overcome our fears and take action. At the end of the day, leaders who care for our shared humanity are able to see things not only from afar, but also from deep within. This is how they recognize the relationship between themselves and their leadership, the world at large, not the least the young generation struggling for survival in crisis countries, and our shared universal values. Once that insight is reached, and the connection is made, I am convinced that financing will be unleashed to give every single child and youth access to their most basic human right: the right to an inclusive, continued and safe quality education.